Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Montreal Canadiens' unexpected hidden gem: David Desharnais

David Desharnais - Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens
Despite being a dominant player at every level, David Desharnais has had to repeatedly prove himself because of his small 5-feet-6, 175 pound frame.

 It takes a special athlete to overcome the ingrained size discrimination that exists in today’s NHL, one who must combine quickness, intelligence, athleticism, skill, courage and, most importantly, determination.

After being drafted 20th overall on June 7th, 2003 by the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, the diminutive pivot managed to have a very successful QMJHL career from 2003 to 2007. In 262 games with Chicoutimi, Desharnais scored 126 goals and added 248 assists for 374 points - a 1.43 point per game rate. He also won the Frank J. Selke Memorial Trophy as the QMJHL’s most sportsmanlike player in three consecutive years from 2004-05 to 2006-07.

Despite a successful junior career, the talented center went undrafted at the 2005, 2006 and 2007 NHL Entry Drafts.

The following September, Desharnais received an invitation to the Canadiens rookie training camp on a tryout basis on the recommendation of Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau, who is a co-owner of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens.

After his tryout, the Laurier-Station, Quebec native signed a contract with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. That year, as a rookie, Desharnais led the league in scoring with 106 points in only 68 games. Desharnais is only the fourth rookie in 20 years to lead the ECHL in scoring.

The competitive rookie added 33 points in 22 play-off games to lead the Cyclones to their first Kelly Cup championship.

One year later, in September 2008, Desharnais was invited to the Canadiens rookie camp on an AHL-contract. He participated in four exhibition games, recording two assists, before being sent down to Hamilton. One month into the season, Desharnais signed a two-way contract with the Habs. In his first full-AHL season, he recorded 24 goals and 34 assists for 58 points along with a +12 ratio in 77 games. He finished tied for third in AHL rookie scoring.

The following season, Desharnais exploded at the AHL level, scoring 27 goals and adding 51 helpers for 78 points along with a fantastic +30 rating in 60 games. The center also played in his first NHL game on November 25th, 2009 at Pittsburgh and recorded his first NHL point versus Washington on February 10, 2010.

In 2010-11, Desharnais starts the season in Hamilton once again, notching an impressive 10 goals and 35 assists for 45 points in only 35 games with the Bulldogs. DD instantly clicks with current line-mate Max Pacioretty before both players get called-up during the season.
When the Canadiens decided they want to part ways with forward Maxim Lapierre on December 30, 2010, trading him to the Anaheim Ducks, it opened a roster spot for the creative pivot. Desharnais was called-up the next day and finished the season with the Canadiens, playing 43 games with the big club, scoring 8 goals and 14 assists for 22 points despite playing only 12:52 minutes per game.

As restricted free agent in July, Desharnais signed a two-year, one way contract with Montreal valued at $750,000 dollars in year one and $950,000 in year two.

Thanks to an early injury to Lars Eller, the 25 year-old center started this season on the team's third line behind veterans like Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez.

Desharnais took advantage of the opportunity. After overpaid veteran Scott Gomez went down with a lower-body injury, DD found himself on the team's top-six playing with talented players such as Erik Cole, Max Pacioretty, Andrei Kostitsyn and Brian Gionta.

After a few games, former head-coach Jacques Martin reunited Desharnais and Pacioretty on a line completed by recently signed power forward Erik Cole. The line immediately began producing and has now become the Canadiens' most reliable forward line.

So far in 2011-12, Desharnais has amassed 5 goals and 15 assists for 20 points in 33 games. He is arguably now the team's number one center, ahead of struggling center Tomas Plekanec. Even when veteran Scott Gomez returns to the line-up, it will be hard for the Canadiens to cut DD's ice time of 17:47 minutes/game as he's on pace for almost 50 points over a full season, whereas Gomez hasn't scored a goal in almost a year.

In short (pun not intended), David Desharnais, or double-D, is an undrafted master illusionist whose magic and courage have vaulted him from the minors to the Montreal Canadiens' top-producing forward line in less than 12 months. He seems destined to join other diminutive players who have had tremendous success in the NHL such as Martin St-Louis and Steve Sullivan.

Fred is a freelance sports write and translator, as well as a Montreal Canadiens blogger on http://thehockwywriters.com and a baseball columnist on http://www.dobberbaseball.com/. Fred also joined HabsAddict.com in time for the 2011-12 season.

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(Photo by Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images North America)


I am going to get chastised for this but I do not cheer for Desharnais. To be honest I cannot stand the guy.

I'm glad he overcame adversity and good for him for making the NHL but I don't like the guy.

I hate the fact that he is owned in the faceoff circle. I hate the fact that he is way too often physically overpowered. I hate the fact that on the PP he plays way too soft.

Again I know this will be an unpopular decision but I would rather have Gomez as the center than Desharnais. Let's see what Plekanec can do with Pacioretty and Cole or let's see what Gomez can do with Pacioretty and Cole before we still give praise to DD.

I will tell you that he would not be part of my roster in 2012-13.

It's not that I don't like Desharnais, but he will never be a legitimate number one centerman. Right now he's got a lot of insulation because Cole and Pacioretty are big guys who drive to the net.

Plekanec has Cammalleri and when he was healthy - Gionta - on his wings. Hardly suprising then that Pleky was struggling considering he's hardly the biggest Hab himself and he's got Mr. Won't Take a Hit to Make a Play on one wing and the Slumpmaster on the other. Now he's got AK back with Gionta out, and last night he got a goal and the game before he had one called off. A midget line is not a recipe for success and if you flanked DD with Cammy and Gio it would be a total disaster, no matter how gritty Gio and DD try to play.

Bryan I saw Cole on Gomez's wing in pre-season in Halifax and I thought they had some great mojo going, but then JM tore them apart for regular season without seeing where it was going, and demoted Cole to the 3rd line. Remember that mess? I'd like to see them given a shot together too. New wingers sometimes seem to energeize Gomez and you can be sure that since we own him, we'll be playing him.

No team will win the Cup with DD as a top 2 or maybe top 3 centreman. If he is the Habs #1 C, then they are in worse trouble than I thought

DD will be better than Gomez ever will for the rest of his career. DD is precisely what we thought Gomez would be and at 10% of the salary. He has better vision than any player on the team and you can see if by the way his line capitalizes. I personally think he's got Marty St. Louis written all over him. He does have his weaknesses, but all players do. Not too many perfect players out there.

I don't think we can assess Gomez based on the Martin system. Some player strive in a defensive system while others struggle. Gomez may just be one of those players who struggles with huge defensive responsibilities.

For Montreal there is a great dependency on d-men and centers. Other teams use the left wing lock as the primary defensive weapon.

If we take a look at just the past 2 games we can already see a more active D-unit pinching instead of retreating. We see a dump with a hard forecheck instead of dumping and changing and we see a 4th line who's asked to create momentum instead of a "prevent defense".

Although I still think Gomez must be bought out in the off season I am curious to see what he can do with an up tempo style that Cunneyworth already seems t want to implement.

While I agree that Desharnais is not a true #1 pivot, he certainly is producing more than it was expected. And guys stop with that Gomez-love, he's a waste of saliva and salary cap. The guys will never produce enough to justify his bloated contract. Heck we don't even know what his injury is!

Is it Martin's system that results in Gomez losing puck possession when he gets past the blue line? His stop and pass manover is easily defended as we see the results in his errant and blind passes once he gets to that stop. Even then, he's not often the first man back like Plekanec (whom we could excuse if he gets tired from all the back checking from being 'defensive').

I'd like to see Gomez in an all-out offensive system, if only to see if there's ANY possibility of a return on that investment we made. Either way, Hamilton just may need this guy if he can be a point per game AHL'er. Chances are he doesn't accept the demotion, though.

He is suffering from a groin injury. Lack of balls I heard. None the less I think the answer goign forward is Plekanec, Eller and 2 replacement centers because neither Desharnais nor Gomez are the solution.

I think the issue with our forwards was the fact we normally start without the puck so our little forwards are forced to expend vast amounts of energy in the defensive zone.

This limits their effectiveness in the offensive zone. Teams like Detroit and Boston almost always start the play with the puck. It is such a crucial component to hockey yet we never seem to address this.

What exactly does DD have to do to earn some love?

In both the ECHL and AHL, Desharnais emerged as a point-per-game player. He works his tail off every game and, in spite of his stature, is unafraid to drive the net. He is the team's fourth leading scorer and is on pace for 50 points.

As for his linemates, he is not playing with Cole and Pacioretty by default. He built chemistry with both wingers and earned his place on that unit.

Desharnais has the tools and work ethic to be a legitimate second centre in the NHL.

Has it perhaps occured to any of you that it is rather Plekanec who is miscast as the first line centre?

For me I am just drawn to certain players and when your team falls short, pun intended, in the size of the players then we just can;t go forward with 3 f our centers being 5'10 or smaller.

As for Desharnais deserving it I don;t think we can know. Since he has played this season he has been with good players.

I want to see what Plekanec can do with guys like Cole and Pacioretty instead of a moping Cammalleri.

Also look at the match ups every night. The opposing team never stacks up the best defensive players against the Desharnais line but rather always against the Pleks line.

You don't think we can know? You don't score at nearly point per game paces in the QMJHL, ECHL and AHL out of sheer coincidence. Nor do you set yourself up for a 50 point season in the NHL out of sheet luck.

Cole and Pacs are good, but its not like he is flanked by Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau either!

And yes, he gets more favorable match ups. That's what happens when you are a number 2 centre.

I am not saying it is a fluke at all but by that same token you cannot look at the Q or AHL either.

Brock Trotter, Jason Ward, Benoit Gratton, Jason Bonsignore, I mean you can go on and on and on of names who succeeded at the minor league or AHL level but have not amounted to anything.

Now I am not saying Desharnais will fit that same mold but unlike some of the players I mentioned Desharnais has been given a chance to succeed. He has responded to those chances and so merits being an NHLer but I just don't want to see in Montreal given the fact that Cammalleri, Gionta, Plekanec, are all top 6 forwards. Adding one more diminutive forw3ard is counter productive to the success of the team IMO.

The problem with Desharnais is that he is weak on the defensive side of the puck. That's where his small stature works against him in the NHL.

@Louis: as for Plek...no, he is NOT a No. 1 center. The Habs don't have one. And, just like they did with Koivu, they are in the process of wasting the best years of Plekanec's career by not insulating him with a legit No. 1.

Can you imagine how sickly good Plek would be playing behind, say, Getzlaf, or Crosby, or any top elite center?

He'd probably become one of the top five No.2 centers in the league.

But alas...

@Unknown: I agree with you in that Gomez's problems are manufactured by Gomez himself, not Martin's system.

@Bryan: Gomez was trained in a defensive system in Jersey. That's where he won the Calder Trophy and put up his best offensive season ever. So you can't say he's a player that perhaps doesn't play well in a defensive system.

He just doesn't play well anymore...period.

@Kamal: You are totally right about Pleks. He would be an excellent 2nd line C or 3rd line checking C....like Carbs back when we had a real team. But my question is, why did the Habs pay him the salary for 1st line C then. This is exactly what the Habs did with Koivu. What happened to the bold moves when we aquired Turgeon and Damphousse. These guys could at least hold their own. This team have not drafted very good in the last 15 years and I do not see a number 1 center in their system right now. So their glaring weakness for a number 1 center and number 1 or 2 D has been the same for the last 10 or so years. Unless the Habs address this, this team will remain a mediocre team at best. If the Habs don't address this soon, they would probably lose Prize and Subban to RFA.

@Kamal: You are totally right about Pleks. He would be an excellent 2nd line C or 3rd line checking C....like Carbs back when we had a real team. But my question is, why did the Habs pay him the salary for 1st line C then. This is exactly what the Habs did with Koivu. What happened to the bold moves when we aquired Turgeon and Damphousse. These guys could at least hold their own. This team have not drafted very good in the last 15 years and I do not see a number 1 center in their system right now. So their glaring weakness for a number 1 center and number 1 or 2 D has been the same for the last 10 or so years. Unless the Habs address this, this team will remain a mediocre team at best. If the Habs don't address this soon, they would probably lose Price and Subban to UFA.

@anonymous: Bingo, you nailed it. And that, my friend, is why I am not a fan of Gauthier as a GM.

Gauthier, and for that matter Bob Gainey, think the game like it's still 1994.

Well, it isn't. You can't just buy your way out of problems.

The first domino was when Gainey put all his eggs in the Vincent Lecavalier basket, and then failed to make the deal happen. Because that deal fell through at the 11th hour, Gainey panicked (imo) and grabbed Gomez. He did this because he felt he couldn't go to July 1st without a No. 1 center.

Not that Gomez is a No. 1, but he certainly tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the public on the idea that he was.

Imagine, for a second, if Gainey had ACTUALLY been able to grab Lecavalier? The Habs would FINALLY have that big No. 1 center they have been missing since the days of Muller and Damphousse. That and Plekanec would be in a better fitting role...that of the second line center.

But, because he was unable to grab Lecavalier and instead got Gomez (who couldn't hack it as No. 1), Plekanec was forced to take on that role.

And since the Habs had no one else to take the spot, they had to pay him like a No. 1.

That is the main problem with the Canadiens, up and down their lineup. They are a team filled with second tier players asked to play top tier roles...and being paid accordingly.

And that is all Gainey and Gauthier. They overvalue certain players and undervalue others. But is it any surprise? Gauthier was and still is in charge of pro scouting. If you ask around the league what others in the know think is PG's greatest weakness, you will hear people say, pretty much unanimously, pro scouting.


@Kamal: So basically, this team is SOL because the Habs cannot clean house to rid of their second tier players with fat contracts. It so sad. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. I thought very highly of Gainey & co but they just shafted all the Habs fan across the world. But only if their drafting was a bit more fruitful, this team might not in this mess. At this rate, the Habs will need a 8 year plan. Three years to rid of all the dead weight contracts to expire and 5 years to rebuild the team to a contender. By then, Price and Subban will be gone. So my suggestion is to trade them now for the missing pieces and replace Price with a second tier goalie for now cause 8 years is a very long time to wait.

Louis, I'm with Kamal. I love Pleky but he's not a true number one center, anymore than DD is. The Habs just don't have one, and that's part of Gauthier's mess.

@KP you can make the argument that h was trained in New jersey but contrary to what people believe he was not brought up in a defensive system.

The trap implemented by Jacques Lemaire was at it's height in the mid 90's. By the time Gomez came around Lemaire was no longer part of the organization and the team has a more offensive style of play.

In his rookie season his coach was Robbie Fterok who obviously did not last long and was soon replaced by Larry Robinson midway through the season.

All of his coaches except for Martin and part of Julien in Jersey have been offensive minded coaches whether it be the above mentioned or the late great Pat Burns (RIP).

Furthermore take a look at his best season production wise and there is a pattern. His 2 best season were his rookie season in 1999-00 under Robinson and then again in 2005-2006 when Robinson came back for a second stint as coach.

Gomez simply plays better in an offensive minded system.

As for centers.....I mean what constitutes a #1 guy? Do you look strictly at points? I think in terms of a 2-way guy Plekanec is among the absolute best in the league.

His problem from what I see is that he is not a great distributor of the puck and he is also not a great goal scorer. He is good at both facets but does not excel. Where he is of the most importance is his responsibility on both sides of the puck.

If he was in a secondary role then certainly he would be that more more effective but the likelyhood of the Canadiens acquiring a #1 center border on slim to none so I want to see Plekanec as a #1 center but playing with top forwards.

Forget Moen or Darche or Leblanc or Gionta. He needs to play with elite players. I mean think of a Plekanec-Cammalleri-Gionta line. Pleks was the guy who had to dig the pucks out of corners because of his miniature wingers.

Let's put Pleks with Cole and Pacioretty or Cammalleri and Cole and let's see what this guy can do.

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